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Environment and Climate Change (European Union Referendum)

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 27th October 2016.

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Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

I think that that was in evidence that was provided to the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Committee recently. The member will find it there, but I am happy to provide the paperwork for Mr Stevenson, if that would be of help.

I will talk about two main subjects: overall strategic planning and peatland restoration. The most recent Scotland’s Rural College report on rural policy in Scotland stated:

“Whilst there are strategies for land use (the Land Use Strategy) and spatial planning (National Planning Framework), there is no overall strategy for rural Scotland and all that it encompasses. What is absent is a strategic framework setting out: specific rural outcomes; a baseline, targets, indicators, monitoring or review processes to see whether targets are being met; and the identification of the means by which collaborative working would be put in place to achieve them.”

For me, it is quite clear what the future should be, and it can be summed up in two words—working landscapes. Brexit offers us a much needed opportunity to reset our priorities, and indeed it will be a driver for that. Although we welcome the land use strategy that was laid before Parliament on 22 March, we still need a coherent, strategic spatial land use plan—in other words, we need more than we have.

We are concerned that the Scottish Government might seek to use Brexit as a way of driving a wedge between previously shared UK and Scottish objectives—the cabinet secretary’s opening speech certainly confirmed that view—which must not be allowed to happen. The Scottish Government must get on with the day job and start delivering on the objectives and targets that it has already defined and set for itself instead of viewing the current situation as an opportunity to weaken or deregulate environmental legislation or targets—the Scottish Wildlife Trust, too, has expressed concern about that. Agri-environment schemes that are funded by pillar 2 payments must continue to be supported for the real and obvious public benefits that they provide, and continuation of those and other schemes must be assured beyond 2020.

The cabinet secretary’s enthusiasm for the environment is well known—it is further evidenced by her cheerful and enthusiastic approach to that brief not once but twice—so she will know that peat restoration is one of the areas that need her special attention. I do not wish to invoke too much the memory of Rob Gibson’s lectures in the chamber on the importance of peat restoration—or, as Jackson Carlaw memorably put it, “peat wetting”—but the serious point is that the Government has not put its back into peatland restoration, which would be a hugely efficient way of capturing carbon.

The Scottish Government’s low-carbon Scotland report in 2013 suggested that up to 21,000 hectares per year of peatland restoration was technically feasible. Professor Robin Matthews of the James Hutton Institute estimated that restoring 21,000 hectares per year would contribute to an 8 per cent reduction in total Scottish carbon emissions. However, between 1990 and 2012, the average area of peatland restored annually was only 1,400 hectares.

To be fair, it is true that the restoration of 3,000 to 6,000 hectares a year was achieved between 2012 and 2015, but it is self-evident that that is far short of the potential 21,000 hectares a year that the Government’s report stated was technically possible. Certainly, it will be a big ask for the Government to provide funding for peatland restoration on the scale that was previously provided for it by Europe. However, it is certainly one of the easiest and most cost-efficient methods of carbon capture. Of course, the Government makes the task more difficult for itself by damaging peat flows through allowing wind farms to be put in peatland areas—often after cutting down trees already planted on those flows—in Caithness and Sutherland, as well as south-west Scotland.

Finally, I have a question for the cabinet secretary that she might wish to address in her closing remarks. Will funding be allocated in this year’s budget for peatland restoration, and if not—as I suspect will be the case—why not?